Sex trafficking is an inevitable byproduct of the so-called “sex industry” in the same way lung cancer is an inevitable byproduct of the tobacco industry. As long as it remains legal for men to buy sex in prosperous countries, a large number of women and girls will continue to be victimised by traffickers across the world and especially in contexts where conflict, extreme poverty and other crises accentuate existing vulnerabilities.
Of course, those profiting from prostitution and their supporters argue otherwise, accusing feminist abolitionists like myself of exaggerating the number of trafficking victims in the industry or the extent of the abuse and violence they endure. They claim prostitution is no different from any other type of work, and say we are trying to criminalise “sex workers” or make them less safe. They argue the crime of sex trafficking is not necessarily tied to the “legal” sex trade and thus should be tackled as a separate problem.
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They are wrong.
Through my decades of feminist activism and investigative journalism, I’ve seen over and over again how prostitution and trafficking are the two sides of the same coin. We cannot end trafficking while supporting an industry built upon the subjugation and abuse of women and girls.
I came face to face with the heinous crime of sex trafficking for the first time in Albania in 1998. Trying to recover from a bloody civil war while in a state of perpetual economic crisis, the Balkan country was a traffickers’ paradise. Large numbers of women and girls were being transported to Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to “work” in the sex industry. Criminal gangs and “entrepreneurs” were treating vulnerable girls and women as “merchandise” and selling them to pimps and brothel owners. These women, often wrongly perceived as willing participants in the trade, had no agency or easy way out of their violent reality.
Little has changed in the two decades since. Despite international organisations and governments throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem, sex trafficking today remains as prevalent as it was in 1998. Countless women and girls in war-torn Ukraine and other centres of conflict and crisis across the world are being coerced or forced into the sex trade by traffickers taking advantage of their extreme vulnerability.
So why are the huge funds allocated by governments and NGOs proving insufficient to end this shameful practice?
One likely reason, as is often the case with crimes that overwhelmingly target women such as domestic violence or rape, is police ineptitude.
Take the case of Nuruzzaman Shahin in the UK.
In January this year, 40-year-old Shahin was sentenced to 31 years in prison for multiple counts of rape, sexual assault, and “controlling prostitution for gain”.
The court heard he trawled online employment websites for migrant women who were looking for work in the UK and contacted them in an effort to recruit them into so-called “escort work”, promising up to 500 pounds ($613) a day. He then went on to rape and assault them, steal their ID documents, and pressure them into selling sex for his gain.
Police said Shahin was arrested for the first time in 2018, but a decision was made to take no further action due to “insufficient evidence”. This, despite several women bravely coming forward to say he trafficked them into prostitution and authorities admitting that he had been under their radar for suspected human trafficking for at least a decade. Only a review of his case by specialist anti-trafficking agents in 2020 led to him being rearrested, charged and convicted.
Two of the women abused by Shahin, Audrey and Sam (not their real names), told me that they had to fight for more than two years to convince the police to take their accusations seriously and investigate the case properly. They are now considering taking legal action against the criminal justice agencies that failed them with the help of legal charity Centre for Women’s Justice.
The incompetence of the police and other agencies, however, is just one of the many reasons for the continued prevalence of sex trafficking in the UK and beyond.
Another, and perhaps the most important, reason why traffickers and abusers like Shahin get to avoid accountability is the widely held belief – shared even by some leading United Nations agencies – that while sex trafficking is a terrible human rights abuse, prostitution is a line of work like any other.
Sex trafficking is defined as the act of transporting people from one country or area to another for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Under international law, there is no need for the crossing of national borders for an act to be considered sex trafficking. Any “pimping” – or controlling of prostitution – that involves the movement of “merchandise” from one place to another is sex trafficking under law and should be treated as such.
Nevertheless, these days cases of sex trafficking within a country’s borders often get ignored as they are perceived as “just prostitution”. People hold the belief that domestic prostitution and “sex trafficking” are completely different concepts and practices, despite many brothels across Europe being full of women trafficked from countries such as Romania and Thailand. Furthermore, in countries like Germany, where the sex trade is fully legalised, much of the human trafficking is sanitised as “migration for sex work”, making it even more difficult for trafficked women and girls to be heard and find help.
So what is the solution?
Like many other feminists who wish to see an end to the buying and selling of women’s bodies, I support what is known as the “Nordic Model“. Under this approach to prostitution, buying or attempted buying of sex is criminalised while selling of sex is decriminalised. Additionally, support is available to those wishing to exit prostitution.
The Nordic Model has been in place in Sweden since 1999, and has subsequently been implemented in Norway, France, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Canada and Israel with significant success. It has proved itself to be effective in reducing the trafficking of women and the sexual exploitation of children in different countries and social contexts. In contrast, a 2013 study from the London School of Economics that looked at data from 150 countries found that legalisation and blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade serves to expand the prostitution market and increase the demand for trafficked women.
Only by addressing the root causes of prostitution will we be able to reduce trafficking. If prostitution remains a thriving business in many countries across the world, and especially in prosperous countries into which trafficked women are traditionally transported, the number of trafficking victims will only increase.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.